American schools are slowly phasing out cursive handwriting, which is an unambiguously good thing. Cursive is an archaic form of communication – one best left to history.
To be clear, when I talk about “cursive handwriting” I speak mostly of the Palmer Method, a simplified form of script popularized in the early 20th century, designed specifically with speed in mind (in part to better compete with typewriters).
This kind of writing is, in my humble opinion:
- Slower than typing.
- Harder to learn, and read, than print handwriting.
- Ugly, when compared to more stylized scripts.
There’s literally no reason for schools to teach The Palmer Method, outside of nostalgia. I argued this back in February, and some of you do not agree with me (to say the least). The initial onslaught of comments was overwhelming, and a trickle continues to come in to this day. Some of you included citations, others tracked down my personal website to make sure you got my attention.
First of all: thank you. I love that you all took the time to get back to me, so I did everything I could to get in touch with all of you. A lot of people care deeply about this, which is understandable. I’d like to add just a few more thoughts to the conversation.
Most of You Left Great Comments
Plenty of educators showed to agree with some of my premise and critique the finer points – conversations I welcomed.
Plenty of other people showed up and…well, here’s a nonrandom sample.
A few went beyond name-based punnery to make arguments – some of which I’ll concede to, with caveats.
- There is a sense of accomplishment that comes with learning cursive. True, but I think teaching a beautiful, pre-Palmer script in art class is a better way for kids to get that feeling. Let’s stop pretending this is a practical skill.
- Being able to read old letters from relatives is extremely valuable. True, but I think one can learn to read such things without spending hundreds of hours learning to write an obsolete script oneself.
Feel free to disagree with me on these or other reasoned points – I’d invite the conversation. But what I won’t invite is any variation of the following arguments, which in my humble opinion are complete gibberish.
1. Kids Will Be Cut off from History!
A number of people claimed that not teaching cursive cuts people off from their history. The typical comment goes like this:
Some went a little bit further, submitting speculative fiction for my consideration:
Ridiculous as this might seem, there is a certain logic here: learning to write cursive means you can also read it, meaning you can better understand documents like this:
You probably know this as the original version of the Declaration of Independence, right? Surprise: that’s not the original. This engrossed copy of the declaration was released in August of 1776, a month after the famous July 4th start of the revolution. The original document, distributed around the world, looks like this:
Yep: the original Declaration was typeset – under the direct supervision of Thomas Jefferson, in fact. Kids not taught cursive would have no trouble reading this.
This shouldn’t be surprising. The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, over three hundred years after Gutenberg’s printing press. Phil Edwards, writing for Vox, explains this is how most early Americans read the declaration.
The initial Declaration of Independence was breaking news — and for that reason, most Americans saw a typeset version. -Phil Edwards
If you want to argue that Americans in July of 1776 were less connected to history than someone who read a cursive version later on, I don’t know what to say to you. The fact is that printed copies of America’s founding documents are widely available today, just as they were in the 1700s – in many cases before the handwritten “originals.”
I’d also add that none of these documents were written using the hideous Palmer Method, which wasn’t popularized until the early 20th century. Go ahead and dig through some old newspapers if you want to prove me wrong – you’ll fail.
One does not need to learn cursive in order to read America’s founding documents – not in the 1700s, and certainly not now.
2. When The Apocalypse Comes, We’ll Need It!
My favorite comments revolved around what would happen if someone took out the electrical grid.
- Print handwriting works just fine without electricity.
- Assuming we’re going to make surviving post-apocalyptic scenarios part of the curriculum, might I suggest we prioritize trapping, fishing, farming, and log cabin construction over letters with loops.
3. Kids Need To Have a Signature!
One subject came up again and again: you need to have a signature.
This seems like a good point, but I don’t think it holds up.
- As any clerk will tell you, most people’s signatures are entirely illegible squiggles at this point.
- Spending hundreds of hours of classroom time on an archaic form of written communication specifically so we can continue to verify transactions seems weird, considering most signatures aren’t legible.
- Signing documents electronically is increasingly common, and might well become the norm.
- Printing works perfectly find for signatures, as a few comments pointed out.
4. Technology Is Destroying Something Real
A number of comments made nostalgic arguments, saying that something real is being lost in this transition. This one, left on my personal web page, represents this argument best:
I deeply respect what’s being said here, but think a key point is missed. Comments like this imply that cursive handwriting is some innate part of being human, but it isn’t. It’s an invention.
Cursive writing is a technology.
There’s nothing natural about handwriting: it’s a tool that we used for a particular period of time to communicate. Today people are using it less and less, because they’ve deemed the alternatives to be better.
In a sense that’s too bad – something is lost every time a technology is replaced. The compass meant fewer people learned how to navigate using the stars; GPS means fewer people know how to use a compass. But this doesn’t mean we should give up on the GPS, or teach everyone how to navigate by the stars. Some people will pursue this knowledge for fun, or because it’s been passed down by their family, but mandating everyone learns it just isn’t realistic.
The fact that people use cursive writing less often today is not because schools aren’t teaching it. The opposite is true: schools aren’t teaching cursive because students aren’t using the skill later in life – and mostly haven’t been for decades.
Mine isn’t the activist argument. The other side would keep something irrelevant in the school systems out of nostalgia, while that time could be used for teaching something productive.
I’m not the one who needs to leave well enough alone.
A Broader Discussion About Technology
Progress takes place over centuries, meaning something that seems like part of the natural order when you’re a kid was alien to prior generations. The Palmer Method was harshly criticized and resisted in its early days, but its speed meant it ultimately won out over better-looking scripts. One hundred years later The Palmer Method is on the way out, because the alternatives are better.
Making predictions about technology is impossible, but so is trying to prevent an obsolete technology from sticking around. And that’s exactly what anyone trying to keep cursive handwriting on the curriculum is trying to do.
But that, of course, is my opinion. I’d love to hear yours. And, if you haven’t yet, you should really check out the comments below my previous article – there are way more good points there than I could fit in this article. I’m looking forward to more great conversation, so let’s get started.